Michael K. Williams, the actor who portrayed stickup-man-cum-antihero Omar Little in The Wire and racketeer Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, died Monday at the age of 54. Williams’ rep, Marianna Shafran, confirmed the actor’s death to Rolling Stone. A rep for the New York Police Department added that Williams was found dead in his home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn at approximately 2 p.m. A cause of death was not immediately revealed, pending the results of the city’s medical examiner.
“It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams,” Shafran said in a statement. “They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss.”
Prior to his acting career, the Brooklyn-born Williams became a dancer who worked with George Michael and Madonna, among others, before earning bit parts in The Sopranos, Law & Order and R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet. “People misconstrue when I say I was a dancer,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “I was not classically trained. I was a street dancer, and I got to do what I did in the nightclubs of New York City … I’m a kid from the streets of Brooklyn who got paid to travel the world.”
While Williams was auditioning around New York, Tupac Shakur saw a Polaroid picture of him and helped cast Williams in his first film role as High Top in Julien Temple’s 1996 crime drama Bullet. “He was like, ‘Yo, go find this dude, he looks thugged out enough to play my little brother,” Williams told People of Shakur. (A prominent facial scar — the result of being slashed with a razor during a brawl in Queens, New York, on his 25th birthday — helped Williams earn his menacing onscreen reputation.)
But Williams rose to fame for his portrayal of Omar Little, the rogue, shotgun-wielding criminal in The Wire who robbed drug dealers in his trademark duster and became one of the show’s most beloved characters. (Barack Obama famously called Little his favorite person on the show.) Williams appeared in all five seasons of the celebrated series from 2002 to 2008.
“I’d been concerned about how my community were willing to receive me playing such an openly gay character,” Williams told The Guardian. “It works because Omar doesn’t apologize for who he is; he doesn’t try to hide it. He’s a standard dude with morals and a code … That’s all we want to be around: real people. We may not agree with each other’s lifestyles, but if a person is upfront about who they are, they gain respect.”
“The depth of my love for this brother can only be matched by the depth of my pain learning of his loss,” Williams’ co-star Wendell Pierce wrote on Twitter. “A immensely talented man with the ability to give voice to the human condition portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.”
“The Wire brought us together and immortalized Omar & Bunk in that ‘scene’ on a park bench,” Pierce added. “But for us we aimed to take that moment in time together and say something about Black men. Our struggle with ourselves, internally, and each other.”
In 2010, he began his stint as Chalky White, one of the head gangsters and de facto leader of Atlantic City’s African American community in the Prohibition-set HBO series Boardwalk Empire. “I wanted to bring dignity to him, in spite of all his flaws, and I wanted people to understand why he does the things that he does,” Williams told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I wanted to pay homage to my ancestors, to anybody who’s alive today, any Black men that are alive today.”
“I’ve learned a lot from [Chalky],” Williams told Esquire in 2011. ” I remember in the beginning, when we filmed, I was shocked that a Black man was walking and talking the way Chalky was in 1920. I’ll never forget Marty — you know, Scorsese — he was like, ‘Go right there. Do it. Be that man.’ That’s who Chalky is. I’m proud of him. He has similarities to Omar in certain kind of ways. I love what he represents for — I guess, I would say, my people. In a time and an era when racism really, really was rampant, you’ve got this Black man who stands strong; he’s respected, and that was rare in those days.”
In addition to his acclaimed TV performances, Williams appeared in dozens of films, including 12 Years a Slave, The Gambler, Life During Wartime, and Inherent Vice. Edward Norton, who cast Williams in his 2019 adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel Motherless Brooklyn, wrote on Twitter that news of the actor’s death felt like being “punched in the gut.”
Riz Ahmed, who appeared on the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of with Williams, tells Rolling Stone: “This is a devastating loss. Michael K. Williams gave us some of TV’s most iconic characters. He had a strength and sensitivity that rarely go together, all wrapped up in a style uniquely his own, both on and off set. His talent was only matched by the size of his heart — he was incredibly generous. He looked out for me in many ways when we worked together. His work is already timeless, and it will live on.”
Williams was open about his battles with substance abuse and had spoken about relapsing multiple times throughout his life. “There were certain things that I normalized [growing up]; the violence and the murder,” he told Men’s Health last year. “And how much [police] criminalize adolescent behavior. My issues went another way, and that took me down the road of chronic abuse. I can’t say I came out of the neighborhood unscathed. You’re either using or selling. I was a user.”
In a brutally candid 2012 profile for NJ.com, Williams opened up about his battles with cocaine both before and after his star turn on The Wire. “I was playing with fire,” he said of his early days of drug abuse. “It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead. When I look back on it now, I don’t know how I didn’t end up in a body bag.
“I had no money … I was broke,” he added. “People didn’t even call me Mike, they called me Omar. But that wasn’t unusual because everybody had an alias. No one was called their government [name] on the block, so they called me Omar or ‘O.’ That mixed with my identity crisis and my addiction — and it was not a good mix. I had to stop trying to be Omar and just be Mike.”
He most recently appeared in last year’s HBO horror series Lovecraft County as Montrose Freeman, father to Jonathan Majors’ Atticus Freeman. The role earned Williams his fifth Emmy nomination, following recognition for his work in When They See Us, Vice, The Night Of, and his portrayal of Bessie Smith’s husband in the 2015 TV movie Bessie.
“That show woke up a lot of demons. A lot,” Williams told Men’s Health of Lovecraft. “It cut me really close to the bone. I have family members one generation removed from me who were sharecroppers — who were alive during Jim Crow. I got trauma passed down. As people of color in Hollywood, entertainment, a lot of times we don’t pay attention to the fact that we sell trauma.”
In a lengthy Instagram post, When They See Us creator Ava DuVernay reminisced on her time working with Williams on the award-winning miniseries about the Central Park Five. “I remember the times you’d come on set even when you weren’t on the call sheet,” the director began. “Just to share a hug. To cheer us on. Strolling in like the King you were.” DuVernay cited the personal connection Williams had to the story, having grown up in New York City around the same time as the young men who were falsely accused in the infamous 1989 rape case, and described his devotion to the role and mentorship of the series’ cast of newcomers.
“You, brother, touched many,” she concluded her post. “Through your personal interactions big and small, through your community activism, through your struggles, through your triumphs, through your glorious work. You moved many. You moved me. What you doubted in life, be certain of now, dear brother. Be certain. You were a flash of love — now gone. But never forgotten.”